Saturday, May 19, 2018

A postscript: The Sexual Inequality Party

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Andrea Constand, Cosby's accuser, who is not mentioned by the WSWS

By Frank Brenner

I think maybe it’s time for the Socialist Equality Party to consider a name change - to the Sexual Inequality Party. I already examined their willful blindness to sexual abuse in a previous post. [1] Here I just want to add a postscript on their reaction to the guilty verdict in the Bill Cosby case. [2] I don’t think it’s over the top to characterize this article as obscene - for its complete indifference to Cosby’s victims. There isn’t a word of sympathy for them anywhere in the article. Even the name of Cosby’s accuser in the case, Andrea Constand, is never once mentioned.

As I noted in my post, the sympathy of WSWS writers is typically for powerful men who stand accused of sexual abuse. So, in Cosby’s case, we are told, the judge’s decision in the second trial to allow five other women to testify about their abuse by Cosby constituted “moving the goal posts” legally so as to secure a conviction. Which amounts to saying that Cosby is the victim of a judicial frame-up.

In the first trial, only one other woman besides Constand was allowed to testify (though others wanted to). There are as many as 60 women who claim Cosby abused them but only Constand’s case was still within the statute of limitations. But just because the legal expiry date had passed for these other women doesn’t mean that Cosby didn’t abuse them. In fact, there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence that confirms their stories, including non-disclosure agreements and hush money paid to some of these women by Cosby as well as grand jury testimony in which Cosby admitted to repeatedly drugging his victims. It could be argued with a lot more justification that the first trial, where all but one of these women were shut out from the proceedings, amounted to “moving the goal posts” in Cosby’s favor.

A constant theme of the WSWS coverage of cases like this is the need to defend due process and the presumption of innocence. These are indeed important legal democratic rights that need to be defended (though as I’ll get to shortly, the WSWS has a huge blind spot about another democratic right). But the Cosby case had way more due process than 99 percent of people ever get who are caught up in the justice system. He had the best legal minds and courtroom strategies money could buy and he was given two full-scale trials. If this isn’t due process, then the term has no meaning. But reading the WSWS the impression you get is that it is Cosby who is the victim, not his accusers. It would seem that even when due process leads to a sexual abuser’s conviction, this is still not enough for the WSWS. So maybe something else is going on here, maybe what they really want is to make sexual abuse vanish as a public concern.

The same article misrepresents a NY Times op-ed by law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer. Tuerkheimer was arguing that the Cosby case might mark a turning point. She writes:

#MeToo can best be understood as a needed corrective to a longstanding reality: Women who report sexual violations by people they know, including mentors, co-workers, bosses, classmates, acquaintances, friends and intimates, are often not believed.” [3]

One study she cites found that half of police detectives believe most of the sexual assault accusations brought to them are false, whereas the actual number of false accusations are typically in the order of five percent. It’s impossible to imagine any other category of crime - murder, robbery, simple assault - where such a situation prevails. It is this “credibility discounting” - not only among police but also among district attorneys, judges, juries etc. - that is a major reason for why sexual assault remains a vastly underreported crime.

To make its case the WSWS journalist, Tom Carter, deliberately misrepresents what Tuerkheimer writes.  Carter states,

Tuerkheimer’s article, titled “The Cosby Jury Finally Believes the Women,” testifies to the erosion of democratic consciousness among substantial sections of middle-class academics influenced by identity politics. Her line of argumentation inevitably undermines the defendant’s right to the presumption of innocence. Moreover, the entire approach runs counter to essential democratic legal conceptions governing a criminal prosecution. The issue confronting a jury is not whether it should, as a general principle, believe women rather than men, or vice versa. [Our emphasis]

Carter’s claim, that Tuerkheimer is saying that women are always to be believed and that this is an attack on the presumption of innocence, is a complete distortion of what Tuerkheimer is saying.  Rather Tuerkheimer is pointing to a longstanding prejudice against believing the accusations of women in sexual abuse cases. She is arguing for the elimination of that prejudice.  That is completely different than arguing for the replacement of that prejudice with another prejudice, namely to always believe the accusations of women. In her conclusion she writes:

“Jurors do not come to a case against Mr. Cosby, or any other defendant, as blank slates. Instead, provided they have not prejudged the facts, jurors evaluate the evidence admitted at trial fairly, applying common sense and their general understandings of how the world operates. In the past, this important work was routinely infected by misconceptions about sexual assault, resulting in the vast underestimation of survivors’ credibility. #MeToo is only beginning to remedy that profound distortion.”

It is because of that profound distortion - rooted in misogyny - that the justice system is an INjustice system for a huge number of women who are victims of sexual assault.

But the WSWS is indifferent to any of this. Specifically, they are blind to a democratic right that is just as consequential as due process - the right to consent. As soon as you take that right seriously, then it becomes evident that there are significant limitations to due process. Sexual assault almost always ends up in court as he-said/she-said cases, which is to say cases where there is no independent corroborating evidence such as a witness. Even if the she-said is more believable than the he-said, it's extremely difficult for that on its own to rise to the level of 'beyond a reasonable doubt' required for a conviction. And as Tuerkheimer notes, that difficulty is hugely compounded by the system’s built-in misogyny.

As far as the WSWS is concerned, this is no problem so long as the rules of due process have been observed. But this is the standpoint of a legal pedant, not a Marxist revolutionary. Here we have a category of crimes where a great many women (and some men) are being abused, often scarred for life, and yet few perpetrators are ever brought to justice. It is to #MeToo’s credit that it has focused a lot of public attention on this grave injustice. But here Marxists would part company with liberals like Tuerkheimer in insisting that within the constraints of bourgeois legality it is never going to be possible to fully reconcile due process and the right to consent (a subject for a possible future post). That being said, whatever advances can be made for justice for women within bourgeois constraints should be supported. In that respect, Marxists can never be members of a Sexual Inequality Party.

[1] Willful blindness on sexual abuse, Frank Brenner,
[2] US media escalates #MeToo witch hunt after Cosby verdict, Tom Carter,
[3] The Cosby Jury Finally Believes the Women, Deborah Tuerkheimer,

Monday, May 7, 2018

Karl Marx 200 years later

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Marx statue in Trier
by Alex Steiner

On May 5th the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx in the German city of Trier.  It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the ideas of no one person of the past two centuries has had a larger influence on the course of history than Marx.  It is also just as true to say that no one since Jesus has had his ideas so bastardized and misused as Marx.  Marx's philosophy of emancipation was turned into an apology for state repression and social inequality at the hands of the Stalinists. Hundreds of millions of people had their impressions of Marx and his thought colored by that upside-down caricature. It is impossible to make an objective assessment of Marx and his work without that consideration.

As with all anniversaries of prominent figures, one can expect a litany of Op Ed pieces and academic forums.  Marx’s 200th birthday is no exception.  It has dawned on the powers that be in his native country, Germany, that Marx can be commodified and turned into a tourist attraction. The most publicized of these rituals took place in the city of Marx’s birth, Trier, where a 15-foot-tall statue of Marx, presented to the city by the government of China, was unveiled on May 5.  The BBC reported that on the day prior to the unveiling,

President Xi Jinping on Friday gave a high-profile speech praising Marx as the greatest thinker of modern times.
He urged China's ruling Communist Party to go back to the roots of Marxism, and said the party would forever remain the "guardians and practitioners" of its theories.
Students and most civil servants in China must complete mandatory courses in Marxism.
The irony of this was not lost on the BBC reporter, who commented,
Despite this, China's capitalist system is home to hundreds of billionaires and a widening gap between rich and poor. [1]
Yet another news source not know for its radicalism, CBS, was also moved to comment on this strange event,
Promoting Marx is seen in part as a way for the Chinese president to strengthen ideological control and counter critics within the ruling Communist Party unhappy with his move in March to eliminate presidential term limits. Xi is also general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, an official that is also not term-limited. [2]

There is historical precedent for a revolutionary movement being transformed into a doctrine rationalizing oppression.  It should not be forgotten that Christianity, beginning as a messianic movement of slaves revolting against their oppressors, was in the next three centuries transformed into the state religion of the Roman Empire.
One of the consequences of the bastardization of Marx at the hands of Stalinism has been the reaction against Marx from the rebellious generation of the 60’s who were disgusted by Stalinist scholasticism and conflated that with the ideas of Marx.  The New Left embodied these contradictions between a revolutionary impulse and theoretical confusion. But the New Left’s adoption of what it considered a left alternative to Marx ran aground on the wreck of the protest movements of the 1960s.  Nevertheless, those impulses from the 1960’s, while theoretically misplaced, at least had an emancipatory goal, a new world free of exploitation.  The same cannot be said for some of the mutations of 1960’s era radicalism that we see today.  These take the form of an identity politics hostile to the working class, a revival of ethnic nationalism and an overarching conviction that nothing fundamental can be done about capitalism. 
Many of these retrograde tendencies were on display at a celebration of Marx’s 200th Birthday at the Goethe Institute in New York.  The Goethe Institute is sponsored by the German government and is the organization tasked with publicizing German culture internationally.  While it is a positive development that Marx is no longer ignored by official German cultural institutions, he cannot be so easily assimilated.
Unlike other icons of German culture such as Goethe and Schiller, Marx was a revolutionary whose heritage cannot be reconciled with the agencies of a bourgeois state. It is hardly surprising therefore that none of the speakers at the Goethe Institute panel on Marx had anything to say that would have been remotely recognizable by Marx had he dropped in. One panelist, a retired law professor claimed that the best examples of the socialist experiment in recent years could be found in the “Global South”. She mentioned in that connection Allende’s tenure in Chile before he was murdered by a CIA inspired coup, as well as certain attempts to institute “African socialism” by some of the nationalist leaders of Africa such as Julius Nyerere. This panelist did not seem very curious about why these experiments failed, while at the same time being dismissive of the far larger and longer experiment in socialism, the Russian Revolution, which she considered something primarily of interest to “white people”.  Another panelist, a graduate student in feminist studies, barely concealed her hostility to Marx and Marxism as she went into a long diatribe on ‘gendered economics’.  To his credit another member of the panel, the Marxist economist Anwar Shaikh, tried to gently correct the muddle introduced by the feminist student that we must start with gender as a primary category in all theorizing about society. He pointed out that you cannot start with gender until you have determined where gender lives. In other words, gender has a historical context and you cannot conceive of the emancipation of women without theorizing what an emancipated society looks like. But this was a minor note in a largely confused symposium in which the ideas of Marx were for the most part either ignored or conflated in an eclectic manner with all sorts of other notions that Marx would not have recognized as his own. Nevertheless, the fact that the Goethe Institute staged a celebration of Marx’s 200th birthday does indicate a recognition that Marx can no longer be ignored or dismissed as an alien presence.
It has not always been the case. The fortunes of Marx’s legacy in his native country has waxed and waned depending on the political climate.  In the latter years of the 19th century when the Social Democratic Party of Germany was the largest socialist party in the world and commanded millions of devoted followers, it was a common practice for workers who passed away to be buried with a copy of the Communist Manifesto in their coffin.  And during the years of the Weimar Republic Berlin boasted of a street named after Marx. On the other hand, during the Nazi era, Marx’s connection to German culture was completely eviscerated.  He became a prototypical “dirty Jew” in Nazi propaganda and therefore an alien presence in the German soil seeking to destroy its greatness. A tract of Nazi propaganda published in 1944 for the Hitler Youth stated,
Remember how Karl Marx falsified the German conception of socialism as a natural order of life, based deeply in German blood, and turned into the phantom of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This doctrine so deeply mirrored the nature of its Jewish inventor that the world knew only to connect it to his name: “Marxism.” [3]
In the post-war years Marx was lionized in East Germany, particularly in films. (Until the release of Raoul Peck’s ‘The Young Marx’ earlier this year, practically the only films that dealt with Marx or his ideas were produced in East Germany.) This served the interests of the Stalinist regime in the East who tried to legitimize their rule at the same time as they suppressed any dissent to their repressive regime. On the other hand, in West Germany during the Cold War years, Marx was ignored and marginalized.  This only began to change with the rise of the student movement in Germany in the 1960’s. [4]
The Goethe Institute forum, while indicating an attempt to come to terms with Marx, could not escape the broad intellectual climate of our time, which is still largely deaf to that great thinker.  In academia, Marx's scientific work, laying bare the mechanism of the capitalist mode of production, was all but ignored and rarely been taken seriously, even by left economists. For example, the Marxist geographer David Harvey wrote recently,
It is widely believed that Marx adapted the labour theory of value from Ricardo as a founding concept for his studies of capital accumulation.  Since the labour theory of value has been generally discredited, it is then often authoritatively stated that Marx s theories are worthless. But nowhere, in fact, did Marx declare his allegiance to the labour theory of value. [5]
While it may be surprising for an economist who considers himself a Marxist to dismiss one of the pillars of Marx’s understanding of capitalism, the labour theory of value, almost in passing, it is not unusual.  He is joined by many other economists and social scientists claiming to be Marxist or “post-Marxist”.
On the question of the whether the labour theory of value has been discredited, Paul Cockshott wrote a good response,
Harvey claims that the labour theory of value is generally discredited. But in what sense?
It is correct to say that the theory is not viewed with favour in economics departments, but that is for political reasons – the labour theory of value came, since Gray and Marx, came to be associated with socialism. Since academic economists, in general, did not want to be tainted with the socialist label they were at pains to distance themselves from the theory.
But none of them ever adduced any empirical evidence to refute it. It was socially discredited but not empirically refuted. [6]
Harvey has also objected to Marx's theory of the falling rate of profit. He wrote in 2014,
"...those who attribute the difficulties of contemporary capitalism to the tendency of the profit rate to fall are, judging by this evidence of labour participation, seriously mistaken. The conditions point to a vast increase and not a constriction in surplus value production and extraction."
Harvey was answered by Andrew Kliman writing in the blog New Left Project, 

Harvey’s chief complaint is that the LTFRP [the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall] and the theory of crisis based on it are mono-causal: it ignores other causes of crisis as well as counteracting factors, and its current proponents typically present it in a way that ‘exclude[s] consideration of other possibilities’. I will argue that this is just a strawman. 
The real issue is not that anyone has advocated a mono-causal theory, but that Harvey is campaigning for what we might call an apousa-causal theory, one in which the LTFRP plays no role at all (apousa is Greek for ‘absent’). He is the one who is trying to exclude something from consideration. In light of his emphasis on capitalism’s ‘maelstrom of conflicting forces’ and its ‘multiple contradictions and crisis tendencies’, one might expect that he would urge us to consider all potential causes of crisis, excluding nothing. However, Harvey is not merely suggesting that other potential causes of crisis be considered alongside the LTFRP. He seems determined to consign it and the theory of crisis based on it to the dustbin of history. [7]

I select Harvey as an example not because I think he is a particularly bad interpreter of Marx, but because he is one of the most widely recognized Marxist economic theorists working today. He is in fact one of the few people who take the study of Marx’s Capital seriously and has made important academic contributions to its dissemination.  But he is typical of many of his colleagues in dismissing the theoretical heart of Capital.
Marx's theories were also vulgarized by many of his admirers who turned it into a doctrine of inevitable collapse.  This remains a popular, though completely misunderstood explanation of Marxism today.  

Marx's signature on a slip from the Reading Room of the British Museum where he worked on Capital.
I should add that the Marxian dialectic remains an enigma to even the devoted few who will defend Marx's economic theories. This is a topic about which I have written extensively. [8] Nor has there ever been an honest coming to terms by Marx's followers about the need to extend critical and dialectical thinking into areas that Marx barely touched. They forget that Marx’s original project called for 6 volumes and he was only able to complete the first volume of Capital.  And that was just Capital. Had he lived long enough he undoubtedly would have had something to say about other areas of life. But the fact that Marx never did develop his ideas on psychology or art in any systematic fashion has led some of his followers to proclaim that these topics are either unimportant or irrelevant. 
There is also the question of whether Marx’s early “humanist” writings can be reconciled with his “mature” scientific work.  I have always considered that debate something of an intellectual fraud. There is no question that as Marx matured his understanding deepened and he even reversed his ideas on a number of questions. But I think it is just as wrong to speak of some break between the early Marx and the later mature Marx, as if Marx stopped being a humanist in his mature years or that his scientific work was irreconcilable with his theory of alienation. That dichotomy was introduced by the work of the French ‘structuralist-Marxist’ Louis Althusser, who defended a “scientific” Marx shorn of the Hegelian dialectic. Althusser had his counterpart in the school of Marxist humanists, many of whom prospered in Yugoslavia, Poland and other Eastern European countries in the 1960’s. This group was looking for a source of opposition to Stalinist Scholasticism in the early writings of Marx. Unfortunately, they tended to identify the later writings of Marx with their Stalinist bastardization. These thinkers championed the early Marx’s writings on alienation which they viewed as completely divorced from his later “scientific” work and his theory of revolution.  Many of these defenders of Marxist humanism later embraced nationalism and anti-communism.
The topic was introduced tangentially at the Goethe Institute forum when one of the panelists proclaimed her allegiance to the “humanist” Marx and rejected the interpretation of Marx as “scientific”.  Had I had the opportunity I would have corrected her by pointing out that there is nothing inconsistent between humanism and science. The issue however is complicated by the common misconception that what Marx meant by ‘science’ was something like the positivist notion of science. [9]
Finally, the Marxian political project is resting on hard times.  The only mass political movements willing to identify with Marx are Stalinist parties representing the interests of tiny cliques of oligarchs.  The Soviet Union is gone as are all the deformed workers states of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.  Political movements that try to carry out the project envisioned by Marx are practically without exception tiny grouplets cut off from any mass movement.  And these groups tend to veer off into increasing bouts of sectarianism while others dissolve their Marxist principles into opportunist cheering of militancy.    
Nevertheless, Marx remains key to understanding the 21st century. [10] Of course, Marx did not and could not have anticipated the complex paths and detours taken by history in the 135 years since his death.  Nor was Marx some kind of biblical prophet whose every prediction turned out be true. To be scientific is not the same as being infallible. It is necessary to supplement Marx with the work of other theoreticians, Lenin and Trotsky to be sure, but others as well, if one is to make sense of phenomena such as imperialism, the Soviet Union, fascism, the colonial revolution and the age of neo-liberal austerity. 
In the final analysis, it is impossible to understand our world today without resting on the shoulders of Marx.  That is the basic ground for any theory of political and social emancipation. 
May Day 2018 in Bangladesh. This worker is depicting the status of the working class still in chains.

[5] David Harvey. Marx’s refusal of the labour theory of value, 2018.

[8] For instance, see my ‘Case study of the neglect of dialectics’,
Unfortunately, most of what I have written in this area is in the form of a polemic against one sectarian group and their abandonment of dialectics.  Nevertheless, I think there are some general lessons to be learned from those polemics for those with the patience to go through them.
[9]  See my essay Alienation and Revolution: A Defense of Marx’s Theory of Alienation,
I have also written on this topic as part of an ongoing polemic against David North. See my defense of Marx’s theory of alienation in Chapter 6 of ‘Downward Spiral’, pages 155-159;
[10] Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin, someone with whom I have profound political differences, nevertheless  nicely  expressed the views of a new generation when he wrote in an essay titled, ‘Why the ideas of Karl Marx are relevant to the 21st century’,
For many in my generation, the ideological underpinnings of capitalism have been undermined. That a higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 have a more favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism at least signals that the cold war era conflation of socialism with Stalinism no longer holds sway.